As Georgiana and Otis’s stay drew near its close, Charlotte became more and more glum. Her friends’ departure would take with them the only brightness in a life that had become rather dull. Despite the rigor that her daily activities with her family required, Charlotte felt remarkably unfulfilled and dissatisfied at the end of each day. She had sought out and met with a few of the local town leaders, but none of them found her suggestions for enhancing the town’s appeal anything more than charming musings of a young girl.
Mr. Heywood was fully aware of Charlotte’s attempts, and of her dissatisfaction. A day before Georgiana’s departure, Mr. Heywood suggested during dinner that the newly-married couple might appreciate visiting Reddings on their way back to London – it would add a day to their journey, but it was an estate well worth visiting and Mr. Stringer might appreciate the visit. Georgiana and Otis both agreed enthusiastically.
Mr. Heywood turned to Charlotte. “And you my dear? What say you to joining them? With my company?”
Charlotte was delighted. “I would be most grateful for the chance to see Reddings again. I haven’t seen it since I was a little girl. And I would like to find out how Mr. Stringer is getting on.”
Reddings was a mere two-hour carriage ride from Wellingdon, and there, they found a ready host in Lord Embrey. He was cheerful, reasonable man, who eagerly listened to all opinions, considered them all very good, and then settled on his own opinion in so apologetic and endearing a way that his friends still felt that he had arrived at it with their own particular assistance.
His particular cheerfulness at their arrival was due to not only his long friendship with Mr. Heywood, but also the recent installment of a new resident at Reddings: Lucia de Luce, the eighteen-year old daughter of an Italian tenor whom Embrey had befriended during a lengthy sojourn in Italy. Her mother was an Englishwoman who had fallen in love with the singer. Her mother died when Lucia was twelve. Her father died some months ago, and, at Lord Embrey’s request, Lucia had arrived only a week before to complete her education and benefit from the oversight of Lord Embrey. He now was pleased that she might have at least a short visit from girls her own age.
“She is a most unusual girl,” Lord Embrey told Mr. Heywood and Charlotte as they toured the house together. Georgiana and Otis walked ahead with the housekeeper, marveling at the features of every room, the artwork on every wall, and the prospect from each window. “She would prefer to sit at her desk and write – I have no idea what she fills her notebooks with – and it takes every ounce of ingenuity I have to encourage her to be outside and enjoy some fresh air. Ah, there we are now. You can see her coming down the lawn with James. We are fortunate that she has at least one young person nearby, and now we have two new young ladies that may interest her.”
Georgiana and Charlotte flew to the window, and there they saw the two figures approaching the house. Lucia de Luce caught their eyes immediately: dressed in bright yellow, her head uncovered, and her arms bare, she walked with a bold ease next to James Stringer, who was chatting away next to her. Miss De Luce looked pleased; they conversed amiably all the way toward the house, until the voyeurs at the window lost sight of the pair below.
“She is also a beautiful girl,” Georgiana said to Charlotte as the group retraced their steps toward the main entrance of the house to greet the newcomers. “Mr. Stringer may find himself distracted from his love for architecture.”
“I do not believe that Mr. Stringer is a man so easily swayed by the mere appearance of beauty,” Charlotte replied, but then the entire party stopped on the stairs as a voice, pure and strong and angelic, began to sing in Italian.
“Ah, and she occasionally – very occasionally – will treat us to her remarkable voice,” Lord Embrey whispered. The group quietly followed the sound to the magnificent Reddings drawing room, where they found James Stringer leaning on the piano, transfixed by Miss De Luce, who played and sang for a few moments longer until she detected the new arrivals. She stopped abruptly, and stood.
“My dear, you need not be startled,” Lord Embrey said, moving toward the pianoforte. He took her hand and drew her back toward his guests. “Lucia, my friends have arrived for a brief visit. I hope you will enjoy their company.”
Miss De Luce dropped to a quick curtsey, which the other girls returned. Lord Embrey made the introductions, and called for refreshments. Mr. Stringer approached to greet Mr. Heywood and his friends.
“How wonderful a surprise,” he said. “I had begun to despair when I might have the opportunity to see you all again, and here you are.” His eyes landed on Charlotte at the last three words, and the delight was plain on his face.
Mr. Heywood explained the nature of the visit, and Georgiana and Otis described the final leg of their journey toward settling in London. Mr. Stringer described his busy schedule, and the largest of the projects with which he had been tasked.
Charlotte had little to add to the conversation except that she was well, and that her family was well. The paucity of excitement and interest in her life made her somewhat ill-tempered, so she shifted her attention to Miss De Luce while her father and friends continued their conversation.
“How do you find England, Miss De Luce?”
“Cold, and wet.” Her voice was surprisingly low and rich, and ribboned with a slight accent that made Charlotte think of red brocade. “I am most grateful to Lord Embrey, but I so long for home.”
Charlotte thought of her own recent stay in Sanditon. “I recently traveled away from home. Not so far as you, of course, but I was away for a few months. I was so pleased to see new things, and meet new people, that I was too busy to be homesick. Perhaps, as Lord Embrey suggested, you need new friends and activities to distract you.”
Miss De Luce’s with her bright green eyes had been observing Charlotte as the latter spoke, and Charlotte felt a bit discomfited under the gaze. “What activities would you recommend?” Miss De Luce asked.
Charlotte was about to list the typical activities that she advised for her younger sisters when they found themselves with too much time on their hands: needle work, painting chinaware, writing letters. But looking at the activities through Miss De Luce’s eyes suddenly made them frivolous. Charlotte grasped for something to say, but Miss De Luce spoke again.
“Mr. Stringer,” said Miss De Luce, “was one of the friends and activities you enjoyed in Sanditon?”
Charlotte blinked. The way she Miss De Luce had phrased it sounded inappropriate somehow, but perhaps her English was unpracticed. “I made his acquaintance in Sanditon, that is correct,” she replied carefully.
“He is a newcomer to this place, as I am,” Miss De Luce said, casting her eyes around the large room. “We are – as the English say – allies.”
Charlotte wasn’t sure how to interpret this comment, but she said, “I’m so pleased that you have become friends.”
The subject of their conversation now joined it, and Charlotte found herself eager to discuss with him his work, the way they used to in Sanditon, and to offer her opinion. But Miss De Luce’s lethargy and sardonic tone during her conversation with Charlotte now disappeared, and in its place Charlotte found an amiable, charming girl with a voice that was suddenly sweeter and at a slightly higher pitch. The conversation turned toward Italian architecture. Charlotte again found herself with little to contribute, and her dark mood returned.
It was only later, after a fine dinner, and after the men finally joined the ladies in the drawing room, that Charlotte found a moment to speak alone with Mr. Stringer. He lingered in the doorway after the other three men entered, and leaned against it as if to survey the room and its contents. Charlotte observed him from the chair in which she’d been sitting, slightly obscured from his view, and stood to join him. At her movement, he straightened, and his face brightened.
“Miss Heywood, I was concerned that you had retired for the night. You looked unlike your usual cheerful self this afternoon – I wondered if you were unwell.”
“I am perfectly well, Mr. Stringer, thank you.”
“Then you find Reddings to your liking?”
“Very much so.”
“And the company has met your expectations?”
“Exceeded it,” she confirmed. She noted his look of anxiety. “You will think me foolish if I share with you the source of my dourness.”
“I doubt that I could find you a foolish person, Miss Heywood. You are welcome to share with me any trouble you might have – perhaps I can help you in some way.”
“Only if you can cure me of selfishness,” Charlotte laughed. “I have done so little, encountered so few people, since leaving Sanditon, that I feel I have little to contribute to general conversation. It is quite distressing,” she said with a smile, “for a young lady to have little to say when in society.”
“Well, I would be happy to hear you talk of any topic,” Mr. Stringer said. “In Sanditon we had excellent conversations, did we not? Your guidance was always encouraging. Indeed, without it I might not have shared my designs with Mr. Parker, or sought the apprenticeship, or enjoyed this opportunity with Lord Embrey. So I thank you heartily, Miss Heywood, and offer you what I can in modest, but earnest, recompense.”
“Thank you!” Charlotte replied with enthusiasm. “I had been so looking forward to learning more about your work. As you know, I was able to assist Mr. Tom Parker in his accounts and management, and I very much enjoyed it. I find myself missing that element of my Sanditon experience most sorely. If there is any way I could serve a similar role here, during my brief stay, Mr. Stringer – it would do me a world of good. I hope you understand?” Charlotte looked at him eagerly, and did not even notice that she had placed her hand on his arm until he looked down at it in surprise. She pulled away her hand and held both her hands behind her back.
“I believe I do,” he replied. “I expect no less from the lass who swings a formidable cricket bat.”
It was agreed that Charlotte and Georgiana would join him for tea in his small cottage the next day, so that he could show them his work and records. When the afternoon arrived, however, Georgiana was unwell, and Charlotte found herself seeking alternate company for the visit. After knocking on the door of Miss De Luce’s room, and hearing a brusque “Enter!”, Charlotte found the young woman hunched over a large writing desk, loose papers scattered both on the desk and on the floor nearby.
“Miss De Luce, I had hoped you would join me for a walk to Mr. Stringer’s cottage,” Charlotte said. “Mrs. Molyneux was to accompany me, but has taken ill.”
“Why do you not go alone?” Lucia asked. “My company would not be welcome.”
“Most welcome,” Charlotte corrected, “and most appropriate. A young lady may not visit a young man’s home unattended.”
Lucia muttered something that Charlotte couldn’t make out, but she did stand, shook out her skirts, and trudged toward the door.
The walk to Mr. Stringer’s cottage was an excruciatingly quiet one, except for the occasional strong wind that pulled their skirts. Eventually Charlotte gave up attempting to entice Lucia into conversation; the other girl seemed lost in her own thoughts, distracted only by the occasional wildflower that she gathered. When they finally reached the door of the charming cottage, Charlotte knocked briskly, and Lucia thrust the small bouquet into her hands before turning and running off into a nearby wood, disappearing from sight just as Mr. Stringer opened the door.
“Good afternoon, Miss Heywood! I was about to despair of your visit happening. Please, come in.”
Charlotte hesitated. “Mr. Stringer, it seems that Miss De Luce has abandoned me on your doorstep. She was meant to accompany me.”
“Miss De Luce does not abide by many of our rules for social propriety,” James Stringer said. “I am disappointed. But perhaps we can walk outside? I could bring some of my papers that I wanted to show you.”
“It seems silly, does it not, to transport your work a mere ten feet in order to comply with social proprieties, and yet expose your precious documents to the elements.” Indeed, Charlotte was forced at that moment to push her bonnet firmly on her head to keep the wind from slipping it off. “Perhaps if we ensure that the visit is a short one –”
“Of course! So short that it might not even count as a visit.”
“And if I offer you, perhaps, only a half-cup of tea, half-brewed, it could never be said that we ever took tea at all.”
“I believe your math is quite unshakable.”
Charlotte knew she should not laugh, but soon they were both overwhelmed with laughter as they developed the precise parameters of their non-visit, safely ensconced in the front room of the cottage.
Mr. Stringer disappeared briefly into the kitchen to prepare the tea, leaving Charlotte to examine her surroundings. The place was neat as a pin, very spare, and without the usual comforts that Charlotte was used to seeing in a home. Instead of a dining table, the bulk of the room was occupied by a large drafting table, covered with papers, measuring devices, and pencils that had been worn down to small nubs. Architectural books lined the few book shelves, along with a few blue earthenware dishes. She found a small blue pitcher, and into this she carefully arranged Lucia’s bouquet, and set it in a more prominent position on the shelves.
“You’ve made a difference already,” Mr. Stringer said with satisfaction, entering the room with a tray of tea-things.
“Lucia gathered the flowers,” Charlotte clarified.
Mr. Stringer said nothing in response, only stood to admire the arrangement a moment longer before setting the tea tray down on a free corner of the large table. Charlotte found herself encountering an odd sensation of resentment that she had not thought to select flowers for the visit; those sweet little flowers managed to overcome Lucia’s total disregard of social propriety.
They settled before the table with their tea, and Mr. Stringer began to show her various drawings and plans. Charlotte’s curiosity led her to ask questions, which led to thoughtful responses, and earnest discussions. “Miss Heywood, I never would have considered these ideas,” Mr. Stringer said in wonderment, looking at a set of plans for a terrace garden. “It is as though you see everything with a completely different set of rules.”
“I don’t know any of the rules, Mr. Stringer,” she replied. “I suppose that is the problem.”
“Not at all. Your perspective is refreshing.”
“I do better with accounts,” she offered. “My mother taught me the proper methods for book keeping.”
“Will you show me? I have only a few financial matters to oversee, but perhaps Lord Embrey would be wiling to expand my responsibilities if I showed a better understanding.”
By the time she had completed her brief tutorial to her satisfaction, Charlotte realized that it was nearly too dark inside to continue reviewing the figures. She exclaimed in despair, “I must get back – it is nearly dinner time, and if Lucia has already returned to the house without me I shall never be able to explain myself.”
“Let me walk with you –”
“It may be unseemly –“
“At least part of the way.”
This was agreeable, particularly when Charlotte was uncertain of the path back to the house. They set along the path together, unusually quiet without the papers before them.
“I must thank you, Mr. Stringer. You may find it unusual, but I find discussions on these topics most satisfying. I have nothing like it in Wellingdon. It’s grown rather dull for me there.”
“Then you are not determined to stay in Wellingdon?”
“You mistake me. I’m not a young man like you, Mr. Stringer, with prospects of advancement, or opportunity to develop my skills. In any event, my family needs me,” Charlotte said, but she could not help add a sigh as she finished her sentence.
“Miss Heywood.” He stopped suddenly, blocking her progress on the path. “What if another needed you?”
“Another?” She frowned. “Another family? I don’t believe I have the fortitude to serve as a governess, nor the immediate financial need –”
“Not another family.” Mr. Stringer looked a bit pained. “Well, perhaps another family. What I mean is – Miss Heywood – Charlotte – what if I needed you? Would that – could that, perhaps, prompt you to leave Wellingdon?”
Charlotte felt a glimmer of excitement. “Oh, Mr. Stringer! Are you suggesting a business venture? It is something that I have been pondering, but have been too timid to suggest – I did not yet tell you about my fortunate –”
“Charlotte, I am not proposing a business venture with you.” Now James Stringer smiled down at her, and she found her hands gathered in his. “I am proposing a marital venture. I would give all to be your husband, if you would have me.”
Charlotte was astonished. In her own mind, she was already beyond any discussions of marriage; in her own mind, she was accustomed to the idea of life as an unmarried woman, and all the benefits and detriments that accompanied it. Furthermore, a marriage proposal from a young man like James Stringer, whose station was so different from hers, who had never received any encouragement from her, was outside the bounds of propriety and expectation.
“Mr. Stringer, I must clarify that I did not seek to entice you into a marriage proposal with my visit today, or through any of my behavior to this point. We were friends, and no more. My visit was intended to be very different, but Georgiana’s illness, and Lucia’s inexplicable behavior, led us to be alone – not my own design.”
“Of course, Charlotte –”
“Then I am not sure what has led you to feel empowered to propose to me! I have made it clear to my friends and to my family that I intend to never marry.”
“I was not aware of that intent,” Mr. Stringer said. He still held her hands, and used this to pull them closer together. In the deepening twilight, she could not tell whether she saw amusement or worry on his face, and perhaps he could not determine her expression, either. He went on, “Charlotte, all I know is that you make me want to be a man better than I deserve to be. All my life I have been told that I cannot, should not, improve myself, or seek to better myself. And then I met you, who have always conducted yourself by a different set of rules.” His voice lowered. “I am asking you that we move through life together, making those rules together, in whatever way that allows us to be our best selves. Whatever kind of satisfaction you seek from life, I pledge to help you find it. I will never keep you from it.”
His words nearly set fire to her heart, but her determination, pride, and suspicions strangled the fire before she had time to consider it. She had observed his behavior with Lucia, and Lucia’s own erratic behavior when it came to James Stringer. She could not, in the first instance, believe that James’ personality would allow fraud, but she had been wrong about Sidney Parker in that respect already. She had already learned of the fallible nature of men’s affections; and James Stringer’s ambitions were as prone to financial enticements as that of the Parker men, if not more so. Perhaps he was already aware of her inheritance, small as it was.
Further, she simply could not bring herself to imagine her life as the wife of a man like James Stringer. She could imagine parts of it – tucked away together in the charming cottage, working side by side at the large table, seeing his handsome smile shine just for her – yes, she could imagine those parts, but she was a gentleman’s daughter. She had enjoyed the prospect of becoming the wife of someone like Sidney Parker – she could not be intended for a life with the son of a brick-layer. His charm as a successful protégé did not translate to a position as suitor.
As though he were reading her mind, James Stringer released her hands. “Are you thinking of someone else, Charlotte? Is it Sidney Parker?”
“No,” she said. But she couldn’t lie. “I am thinking of him, a little.”
“Because you still want to marry him?”
“Mr. Stringer, I have determined never to marry,” she repeated.
“So tell me now – if Sidney Parker were waiting for you at Reddings Hall, right now, and offered his hand to you – you would say no because you shall never marry?”
Charlotte kept her gaze at her feet. “He is marrying another.”
“He has changed his mind once, and he might again, in your favor. How could he not, unless he is an utter fool? And how would you answer? You would reject him, as you have me?”
Charlotte still could not look up. The prospect was an enormous one – that Sidney’s engagement with Mrs. Campion might fail for some reason. What if he came riding out into the night to Wellingdon, to Reddings, to seek her out?
Her silent contemplation was answer enough for James Stringer. He took a step back, and then another, so that he became only a dark shadow in the twilight. “If you follow the path directly,” he said with difficulty, “you shall see the lamps of Reddings Hall. My apologies for keeping you. Good night, Miss Heywood.”
“Mr. Stringer, I did not mean to –”
But he did not pause, and in a few quick strides his long legs carried him farther than her voice could reach. Charlotte let out her breath in a little gasp. She turned toward the house, and carefully made her way along the path in the faint glow of moonlight. She was nearly within shouting distance of the house when she heard her name being called.
“Charlotte!” It was Lucia. She was running toward Charlotte across the lawn. “Our timing is fortunate. Come, let us walk in together.” She linked their arms together, and began to march toward the main doors of the house.
“Lucia De Luce, I shall never forgive you!” Charlotte pulled herself away, and turned to face the other girl. “Your behavior was most inconsiderate, and placed me in a compromising and very awkward position this afternoon.”
“Did you not enjoy your afternoon with James?”
“No, of course not! That is, I enjoyed part of it. But that is not the point. Our isolation provoked Mr. Stringer to make certain assumptions, and to –” Charlotte stopped. She was not sure that she should share the precious information with Lucia.
But Lucia smiled wisely. “He has proposed? And you have rejected him?”
Charlotte allowed herself to barely tip her chin in a nod.
“As I suspected.” Lucia’s tone, if not her stoic face, betrayed a kind of delight, and Charlotte did not know what to make of it. “Come. We will go inside, and the others will assume we have been together. I will not reveal otherwise if you do not.”
“I have no intention of disclosing these events to anyone,” Charlotte said.
Lucia nodded in satisfaction and took Charlotte’s arm again. “But where were you?” Charlotte demanded as they walked forth. “All afternoon and evening. Where could you possibly have been if you weren’t here at the hall?”
“England has little appeal for me, but its woods are irresistible,” Lucia said.
“You’ve spent the entire day in the woods?” Charlotte asked with incredulity.
“Nearly,” Lucia said, and said nothing more. As they joined the rest of the party, Charlotte feebly explained their long absence, but Lucia slowly wandered farther and farther out of the circle of people until she had disappeared from the room. Later, Charlotte stopped outside Lucia’s door, pressed her ear to it, and hear the scratching of a pen and rustling of papers.
For the rest of Charlotte’s short visit, Mr. Stringer remained aloof, and, perhaps by chance or perhaps by design, was called away to attend to a building project a few miles away. Lucia remained largely secluded in her room, emerging only to eat, and then retreating again. Lord Embrey was unconcerned. “I cannot begrudge her the time she devotes to her papers and musings,” he said as the group enjoyed a walk in his gardens. “I am a man with particular passions as well, and know what it is to experience concentrations of sudden interest and obsessions. And thus we have the fruits of my labors,” he added, gesturing toward the house.
Charlotte was dissatisfied – not because she wanted to spend more time with Lucia – certainly not – but because she did begrudge Lucia the luxury of devoting herself to her passion so completely. Charlotte allowed herself to think about the afternoon in James Stringer’s house, and the complete satisfaction she had experienced there. If only he had not taken liberties, had not set aside social proprieties, had not ruined a friendship that might have resulted in a partnership – a business partnership – beneficial to both of them! Charlotte was quite cross with Mr. Stringer, and considered herself quite blameless.
Charlotte convinced her father to cut short the visit, and before she had to encounter Mr. Stringer again, and before she had to spend more time with Lucia De Luce than her constitution could handle, Charlotte bid Lord Embrey, Georgiana, and Otis farewell, and returned with a heavy heart to Wellingdon. There, she picked up her needlework, and the books she had already read, wrote letters on trivial matters, occasionally painted additional flowers onto the china that had seen her ministrations in the past, and generally became quite unpleasant to her brothers and sisters as she managed their educations and behavior.
She also remained very cross with Mr. Stringer, and could not find a way to forgive him so that she could put him and his proposal out of her mind.